The Wight Stuff

Published by Reuters

 

In 1970, it was described as “a psychedelic concentration camp.” But this summer, the United Kingdom’s Isle of Wight Festival tops a series of events that will see the 150-square-mile island become the sold-out epicenter of the U.K. festival scene.

Rock fans with long memories remember the IOW’s run of festivals in 1968-70, although the chaotic 1970 event headlined by Jimi Hendrix and the Doors has long carried negative associations. The “concentration camp” reference comes from one of 500,000-plus attendees captured on that year’s concert film “Message to Love.”

But fast-forward into the 21st century and one 1970 veteran has emerged as a key player behind the reinvention of the island as a “must-go” music destination, which this summer hosts four major outdoor events.

The island location is key to the IOW festival’s appeal, says London-based Solo Promoters managing director John Giddings, who revived the event in 2002. For performers, he says, “it’s different from a normal experience. You can drive a boat into the backstage, and it sticks in their minds.”

The south coast holiday island also hosts 30,000-capacity dance/alternative festival Bestival, an offshoot of the Sunday Best label/club events firm headed by BBC Radio 1 DJ Rob Da Bank, co-promoted with events management/promotion company Get Involved. The lineup for this year’s sold-out dates (Sept. 5-7) at Robin Hill Country Park includes My Bloody Valentine, Amy Winehouse and Underworld.

For fans, Rob Da Bank says, “as soon as you get on the ferry, you let your hair down and leave a bit of yourself on the mainland. The pace of life is slower down there, and that’s a good thing.”

In 2002, Giddings sold out 10,000 tickets for a bill including the Charlatans and Robert Plant. Charlatans vocalist Tim Burgess recalls the IOW as “a really fun place to play—like something out of an Enid Blyton novel.” He adds, “There’s a sense of adventure, like you are leaving behind society and inventing your own little world.”

Since 2002, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, R.E.M. and Coldplay have all graced the IOW festival stage. In its role as a booking agency, Solo represents the Stones and Bowie, plus 2008 performers the Police, Sex Pistols, N*E*R*D and the Stooges.

This year’s event (June 13-15) rapidly sold out its 50,000 tickets—no mean feat at a time when the usually pre-eminent Glastonbury Festival failed to do so.

Giddings has also organized two new 10,000-capacity IOW events July 26-27 at stately home Osborne House, which Paul Weller and Girls Aloud will respectively headline.

Despite attractive locations, Giddings admits that creating a festival on an island poses strategic challenges. “It costs a lot of money to [transport] equipment on a ferry,” he says. “You have to hire everything for a week longer than normally.”

Initially a 10,000-capacity event, the original IOW festival’s explosive growth ultimately proved its undoing. The 1970 event remains the biggest festival in U.K. history, but, Giddings recalls, “it was completely, utterly uncivilized.” The rock festival, he says, “was a new thing in modern culture; no one knew quite how to handle it.”

The current festival is a vastly different beast, with enough broad appeal to attract telecommunications giant BT as headline sponsor. And whereas many islanders greeted the original events with horror, IOW council leader David Pugh says the estimated 130,000 residents now largely appreciate the big concerts, claiming the IOW festival alone spins off at least £10 million ($19 million) annually for the island.

“We see our role as facilitating and encouraging these events,” he says. “It’s about striking a balance. The majority of islanders recognize this as good for the economy—and for the profile of the island.”

 

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